The Atlantic

Is the 'Cynthia Effect' Real?

Cynthia Nixon’s strong debut has New York Governor Andrew Cuomo scrambling to the left in a heated primary. But can Democratic voters trust a celebrity candidate in the age of Trump?
Source: Bebeto Matthews / AP / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

NEW PALTZ, N.Y.—“I’m Cynthia Nixon, standing in the mud!” the candidate declared by way of introduction to a rally of students, professors, and activists near a State University of New York campus about 80 miles north of Manhattan.

The crowd laughed as Nixon acknowledged her obvious predicament: She wasn’t standing in the mud so much as she was sinking into it, a soggy hillside field threatening to swallow her gray, two-inch heels that dug into the grass like a plug into an outlet. When she finished the 10-minute speech she read from loose sheets of paper, she staggered over to greet supporters and reporters, stepping gingerly in search of a dry spot on which to steady herself.

It could be a handy, if unfortunate, metaphor for her gubernatorial campaign—the Emmy-winning actress and first-time political candidate being devoured by the behemoth Governor Andrew Cuomo, the two-term Democratic incumbent cruising to reelection and a possible presidential bid.

Except it really isn’t true.

Cynthia Nixon is doing just fine, and if one candidate has been knocked back on their heels in this race, it’s Cuomo. That’s not to say she’s winning—she’s not by a long shot. The best public poll for Nixon has her down 22 points, and the governor has both a $30 million campaign war chest and the institutional support of the Democratic Party.

But Cuomo, 60, seems to be scrambling to shore up support among the progressive voters who could thwart his renomination in the September primary. In the less than two months since Nixon declared her candidacy, Cuomo all but reversed his opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana, which he called “a gateway drug” as recently as last year; proposed a ban on single-use plastic bags, again barely a year after he signed legislation barring New York City from imposing a tax on them; vowed to use his pardon power to restore voting rights to as many as 35,000 felons; and declared a state of emergency at the city’s public-housing authority.

The primary election isn’t for another four months, but the Cuomo-Nixon contest is already becoming a useful test of two post-2016 dynamics: Do Democratic voters want their own sharp-tongued celebrity over a political veteran? And will they insist on the kind of progressive purity that Bernie Sanders popularized, or are they willing to reward pragmatism?

Just about all of Cuomo’s recent policy announcements have come on, according to the executive director of the state’s Working Families Party. The pressure didn’t stop the WFP from endorsing Nixon, giving her a progressive nod that went to Cuomo four years ago and potentially a spot on the general-election ballot in November even if she loses the Democratic primary. Last week, she also won the support of Our Revolution, the progressive organization that grew out of Sanders’s presidential campaign.

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